A Curious History of Vegetables: Aphrodisiacal and Healing Properties, Folk Tales, Garden Tips, and Recipes - Wolf D. Storl (2016)
Bean (Phaseolus vulgaris, Phaseolus coccineus, Vicia faba)
Plant Family: Fabaceae, Leguminosae, or Papilionaceae: bean, legume, or pea family
Other Names or Varieties: navy beans, pinto beans, black beans, kidney beans, lima beans
Phaseolus vulgaris: common bean, green bean, French bean
Phaseolus coccineus: runner bean, scarlet runner bean, pole bean
Vicia faba: fava bean, broad bean, Windsor bean, horse bean, pigeon bean
Healing Properties: lowers damaging LDL cholesterol; regulates the large intestine; promotes urination (diuretic); beneficial for adult-onset diabetes
Symbolic Meaning: souls of the dead, death and rebirth, sexuality, poverty, foolishness
Planetary affiliation: Venus, Saturn
Our common green beans were originally climbers in the South American tropics. Even today, the indigenous natives in South American jungles gather wild beans (P. aborigineus) to eat. And yet the bean is actually a poisonous plant. Eating the beans pods or the seeds raw can cause acute stomach cramps, after which the body will try to rid itself of the toxic proteins through vomiting and diarrhea. In the very worst case, the poisoning can lead to a circulatory collapse—and even death.
One would assume that humans would avoid such a toxic plant, but South American natives are absolute masters of plant pharmacology. They’ve long known how to make poisonous manioc roots (cassave, Manihot esculenta), a spurge containing prussic acid, into a main staple. They also boil complicated plant mixtures down to potent arrow poison (curare).1 And from the bark and leaves of the Ayahuasca liana (Banisteriopsis esculenta) they make one of the most potent shaman brews, one that opens the user to the world of the spirits and makes genuine telepathy possible. The magic brew works only when Ayahuasca liana is boiled with other herbs and roots that also contain DMT (Dimethyltryptamine); none of the single ingredients alone has psychedelic properties. The brew is so incredibly complicated in its composition and effect that it cannot have been the result of experimentation, and its secret was not revealed to others until Western researchers cracked it the 1970s. The indigenous people, however, have no use for laboratories and equipment. As ethnologists report, shamans have the ability to communicate directly with the spirit of the plants and inquire of their secrets—be they for medicinal purposes or for the purely nutritional, such as beans being an excellent source of protein.
Illustration 11. Original European fava bean (illustration by Molly Conner-Ogorzaly, from B. B. Simpson and M. Conner-Ogorzaly, Economic Botany, 1986, 195)
The cultivation of the bean was a very long process that took several thousand years to spread over the entire Western Hemisphere. The oldest findings in Peru date back to 6000 BC. Through careful selection, ever more kinds, sizes, and colors were developed over time. It is not surprising that beans in combination with corn became basic daily food of many Amerindian cultures, as they complement each other perfectly. Together they contain all of the essential amino acids needed for nutrition, a combination that can even substitute for meat. This factor greatly benefitted the Aztecs, as the needs of their population eventually outgrew the animal protein that was available, which was mostly turkey and Chihuahuas. (In addition, the warrior class of Aztec society augmented their protein intake with “sacred” cannibalism: war captives whose hearts had been offered to the sun.) To this day beans (habituelas) and corn—in the form of tortillas, enchiladas, or tacos—are the daily fare of Mexicans. Frijoles, a kind of baked beans, belong to the culinary identity of Mexico in the same way that hamburgers and fries belong to the United States, or roesti (a plate-sized hash brown) to the Swiss.
North American Woodland Culture Indians planted beans, corn, and pumpkins in raised mounds; the corn served as climbing poles for the beans. In the fall, larders were full to the brim with corn, beans, and squash. These natives saw the three cultivated plants as philanthropic goddesses who had fallen from the sky to the earth and taken on plant bodies. The “three heavenly sisters” were celebrated in sacred winter ceremonies. And the Algonquian Indian succotash—corn kernels and beans cooked together—is still a typically American dish, just like roast turkey, corn bread, and pumpkin pie. East Coast baked beans also come to us from Native Americans, who stewed a pot of kidney beans with woodchuck or bear meat (or, later, pig meat) in a pit of hot coals covered with earth, where it was left to bake for twelve or more hours.
As of the sixteenth century the South American “welsh” bean (meaning “foreign” bean) conquered gardens of the Old World. It even slowly but surely replaced the old European fava bean (Vicia faba) or broad bean, which had been a crop since the late Neolithic in the Near East and was even identified in the Bible. Fava beans were found in ancient lake dwellings in the foothills of the Alps. Germanic and Celtic peoples grew them in pre-Roman times as both food for people and fodder for animals; this was true especially in the coastal regions where the soil was too salty for peas to thrive (peas being the other favorite source of protein). With the arrival of Indian beans, fava beans became nothing more than fodder for livestock and were degraded to the status of “pig beans,” “sow beans,” or “cow beans.” (It wasn’t until the twentieth century that fava beans were rediscovered as cooking beans.) The banishment of the fava bean became even more complete when the whole folklore and healing lore surrounding the Old World species—including the clownish bean songs at festivals celebrating beans during the winter solstice—were also transferred to the new Indian beans.
In Europe beans are generally associated with stupidity, craziness and foolishness. A British expression reflects it: “His beans are in full bloom!” In Northern Germany, a drunkard or crazed person is said to be “in the beans” (Er ist in den Bohnen). In English something “isn’t worth a bean” or someone is “full of beans.” Indeed, the British comedian Rowan Atkinson is well known for his appropriately named Mr. Bean character. And why does the bean have a seam? … Because it laughed so hard that it burst and had to be sewn.
The tradition of holding bean festivals at the close of the year dates as far back as the Saturnalia festival in ancient Rome. In very ancient Roman times, the Saturnalia King (the one who got the piece of cake with a bean it in) was chosen one month before the end of the festival. Once taking office, he was celebrated as the incarnation of a god, allowed to indulge his desires, passions, and moods without restraint. The drawback to this ritual was that on the evening of the festival his reign ended, at which point he had to cut his throat as a sacrifice in front of the altar of Saturn! The Saturnalia is an obvious extension of the archaic chaos and fertility festivals known from pre-Roman Mediterranean cultures—which include sacrifices and orgies that we cannot understand from our modern perspective. During such festivals, borders between our human world and the extrasensory world, this world and “the other world,” are obliterated. The dead come closer to the living, transmitting energies and power necessary for new life and reincarnation.
Saturnalia was also a time when usual taboos were suspended. Masters and slaves traded places, men and women changed roles, all rules were broken, and there was no lack of sensual joy and abandon—with orgies not uncommon during the festivities. For the old Romans, the merriment was dedicated to the grandfather of the gods, Saturn. Saturn carries a bag of seeds and a scythe, as he had given people the first seeds and taught them agriculture. He also rules over times of downfall, whether in world epochs, in the yearly cycle, or in the life of the individual.
Other agriculture peoples celebrated similar festivals to ensure the fertility of the fields, the cows, and the tribe. For example, the Iroquois and Algonquian had a midwinter fools festival during which the invisible gods of the food plants possessed the people, temporarily robbing them of their senses.
Carnival-like festivals similar to the old Roman Saturnalia are still celebrated in all of western Europe around the time of the winter solstice. In Holland, for Three Kings’ Day or Epiphany (January 6) a cake is baked with a bean in it. Whoever gets the piece with the bean becomes Bean King or Queen; the lucky one chooses a mate, and the two get royal treatment during the evening’s dancing and feasting. The partygoers freely consume alcohol and enjoy pranks and tomfoolery, and everyone enjoys laughing about the whole scale of human stupidity on display. Like with Saturnalia, the usual taboos are lifted, including sexual ones. A verse of a bean song from eighteenth century Hamburg goes like this: “You young fellows, you don’t have to try to ensnare those young ladies with your beans and the taut ham between your thighs” (Ihr Junggesellen müsst nicht den Jungfern Netze stellen mit euren Bohnen und wohl gar mit eurem prallen Schinkenpaar). An Alemannic bean song ends each verse with the refrain: “Now go on and get the heck out of the beans.” In Germany people still say, “That goes even beyond the bean song (Das geht übers Bohnenlied)” when something has gone over and beyond what is socially acceptable. In modern European bean celebrations the participants might lift up the bean king so that he can write, with chalk on a ceiling beam, CBM (the initials of Caspar, Balthazar, a ritual believed to drive off all the bad spirits). This custom was originally dedicated to the Celtic Matronae, the three goddesses, who blessed all homes at the end of winter solstice celebration.
In modern carnivals there remain only a few remnants referring to beans and the role they used to play. In such festivities a carnival king and queen are usually chosen via a method particular to the region, and many comedians present sketches about stupidity—much of which is televised. Such events are still considered a time for the social vent—when people can joke about taboos and say things they might otherwise not to say. In all, very few know the prominent role the bean once played during the festivities of former times—though in some areas a bean baked in a cake still determines the lot, and some bean songs have survived to this day.
Illustration 12. The bean king (Otto von Reinsberg-Düringsfeld, Traditions et Légendes de la Belgique, 1870)
In many places beans were considered appropriate food offerings for the spirits of the dead. Beans were found in Egyptian graves (Fifth Dynasty, 2500 BC) as well as in prehistoric burial sites in Peru. Beans, along with peas, millet, hazelnuts, and hempseed, were also the preferred food offerings for the dead of the Germanic, Celtic, Baltic, and Slavic peoples. They were also convinced that the enjoyment of pulses—the edible seeds of various legumes—increased carnal desire in the living, thus making it easier for the departed ancestors to reincarnate.
After the Christianization of these cultures, though broad beans became a major food for the time of fasting (Lent), they were otherwise not favored. Until long past the Middle Ages people avoided eating beans during the time of the winter solstice—even though the legume had formerly been such a favorite food at that time of year. In a curious shift in belief, beans were thought to cause infertility or dreadful nightmares. An old superstition deems that dreaming of beans announces hardship, discord, or even death in the family. If a bean plant suddenly got white leaves (chlorosis), it meant a death would occur in the family. It was believed that one could even curse an enemy to death with the help of dried beans. To do this, one chanted a spell for seven weeks, throwing three beans each day over the shoulder and onto the dung pile where they—just like the unfortunate target—would rot.
Beans were an integral part of ancient death rituals throughout history. For the Greeks, bean blossoms were a symbol of death. Homer called beans “the nourishment of (fallen) heroes.” In the evening of the May full moon, when the spirits of the dead (lemures) descend down to the earth, the Roman head of the household walked through his house strewing nine black beans while saying: “With this, I buy myself and my kin free!” Another Roman bean festival, Fabaria, celebrated on the first day of June, honored Carna, the goddess of death. The Romans offered her beans and bacon so that she might protect them from vampires of the night seeking to suck out their lives in their sleep.
Because of the long-held association of beans with sexuality and the dead—it was generally believed that beans contained the souls of the dead—priests of old considered them impure. Indeed, Egyptian priests were not allowed to touch beans, and Roman flamen—priests who maintained the fires at sacrificial ceremonies—weren’t allowed to even mention them. And both Orphic priests and Pythagoreans were forbidden to eat beans, as these mystics claimed that eating beans would be “like eating the head of one’s own parents.” The sense of taboo was so strong that a group of Pythagoreans even let themselves be mowed down by soldiers rather than escape by running through a bean field. Given this context, we can better understand a comment of the philosopher Diogenes of Sinope (412-323 BC): “Beans are mainly made up of the substance which accounts for animation in human beings.”
In ancient Greece voting was conducted with white and black pebbles or beans; winners were those granted the most white beans. (Consider too the phrases “spill the beans” and “bean counter.”) Beans were particularly used in the elections of magistrates. Why? Because the dead were believed to live in them, and the wise ancestors, who know much that remains unknown to the living, should help decide who is worthy of office. But how did the Greeks and other peoples come to presume that souls live in beans? The French ethnobotanist and classicist Jacques Brosse (1922-2008) would reply that one need merely to open a bean pod to find the answer, as beans looks like embryos. Indeed, the Greek word for bean, “kyamos,” comes from the verb “kyeo” (to carry in the womb).
Not surprisingly, beans played a part in choosing the victim in the archaic Hellenic tradition of sacrificing one of their own at year’s end—a tribute to the dying year that looked to life’s revival out of the earth in the coming spring. As drawing the lot of the bean determined who would be sacrificed, it was believed that the spirits of the dead themselves influenced the selection. After all, the bean symbolized the “embryo” of the New Year—the “New Year’s Baby”—whose life on earth begins after the winter solstice.
Illustration 13. Oldest sketch of the bean plant (Leonhart Fuchs, De Historia Stirpium Commentarii Insignes, 1543)
Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) wrote that beans have something animated, something “astral” (ensouled) about them. The roots of beans and other legumes have little knots in which live symbiotic nitrogen-binding bacteria (mycorrhizae). Steiner calls nitrogen (N), which legumes greedily absorb, “incarnation substance for astral realms” since no animated beings, no soul, can incarnate without this element. Indeed, “animals” are animated souls (from the Latin anima). The proteins in animals contain large amounts of nitrogen—in contrast to plants, who are mostly made of carbohydrates: that is, carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. Generally, plant “souls” remain nonincarnated and in “other realms”; only when flowering do plant souls fleetingly take on physical appearance. But beans and other legumes contain so much protein that one could call them “animal plants”—and, as mentioned earlier, that they can be a nourishing substitute for meat.
Beans (Fabaceae), whether Phaseolus or Vicia, reveal themselves as especially animated (“astralized”) in other ways, too. They do not blossom actinomorphically (in round disks) like, for example, daisies or sunflowers. Instead they bloom zygomorphically (with double symmetry), having a top and bottom, a front and back, like orchids or pansies—and more like animals. The corolla of the Fabaceae blossom reminds us of a butterfly. Indeed, that is why the scientific name of this plant family is also Papilionaceae, from the Latin word for butterfly, “papilio.” But the similarity to animals extends beyond just appearance. Though we associate mobility, or animation, with animals, not plants, beans present an exception to this rule. Pole beans, which grow quickly, spiral around vertical supports, and the leaves fold up at night. Their filaments, which carry pollen-bearing anthers, are also capable of animal-like movement so they can pollinate the pistil when insects fail to do so. Interestingly, it’s the sheer fact that these plants are animated, or astralized, to this extent that makes them usually poisonous; as such they are best not eaten raw or undercooked.2
Traditional Medicinal Use
What kind of healing energy is contained in this unusual garden dweller? Medieval doctors saw the signature of Venus—the planetary goddess who rules over the urinary and sexual organs and is also responsible for physical beauty—in the white blossoms and the shape of the seeds (which look like kidneys, embryos, or testicles). The English herbal doctor Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) noted about preparations with fava beans (Vicia): “The distilled water of the flowers is good to cleanse the skin and face from spots and wrinkles. The water distilled from the green husks is held to be effectual against the stone, and to provoke urine… . Bean flour, boiled to a poultice with wine and vinegar and some oil put thereto, easeth both pains and swelling of the testicles.” He recommends an external application of ground beans mixed with fenugreek seeds and honey for rashes, bruises, and contusions. He also ascribes a diuretic and kidney strengthening effect to the “French bean” (Phaseolus).
These indications are basically still true today. Phytotherapists prescribe a diuretic, uric acid-reducing decoction from the dried pods of green beans (Phaseolus) for rheumatism and fluid retention. Such a decoction is also still used today against the onset of adult diabetes; the guanidine derivative has an insulin-like effect. Bean flour poultices (mixed with honey and oil) are still used successfully today for all kinds of swellings and lumps. Skin rashes can be treated with dried and ground bean pods applied as a fine powder. Native Americans treated lumbago with hot poultices of cooked, mashed beans.
Recent research shows that beans are good for us in other respects, too. Beans can cause gas (“Beans, beans, the musical fruit …”), but they also help regulate the function of the large intestine, prevent constipation, and help prevent hemorrhoids. They help reduce damaging LDL cholesterol and blood sugar levels, and like many pulses they contain cancer-inhibiting protease, which gets released once they reach the intestines.
CULTIVATION: Pole beans have preferences similar to bush beans. Pole beans require a longer time to mature, but the yield is higher and they need less space.
Before planting, briefly presoak your beans for a few hours in water with the addition of a nitrogen inoculant, such as in water in which a cow pie has been soaking. This will ensure that the beans sprout faster and continue to grow steadily. When plants are about three inches high, thin them to about four to six inches apart. Cultivate lightly with a hoe so as not to disturb the shallow roots. Light mulch may be applied after the plants are thriving. For best texture and flavor, beans should be picked before they are fully mature. Regular picking is important since the plant will stop producing if the seed is allowed to mature. The traditional method of planting pole beans is to drive seven-foot stakes into the ground, mounding up some soil around the base, and planting six (inoculated) seeds in the hill around each pole.
SOIL: Bush beans, also called snap beans, can thrive in almost any soil from light sand to heavy clay. Pole beans have the same requirements but can withstand even heavier soils than can bush beans. Bush beans are a most rewarding crop, as they are easy to grow, productive, and simple to harvest. Note that bean seeds need warm soil in order to sprout; in cold soil they will rot.
OF SPECIAL NOTE: Instead of making one large planting of beans, make several plantings at two-week intervals. This will assure a continuous supply of beans throughout summer and early fall. All beans fix nitrogen in the soil and therefore are valuable soil builders. When clearing the finished bean plants, cut them off at soil level and leave the roots in the ground. As the nitrogen is fixed in the roots, in the following year one can grow nitrogen-loving vegetables where the beans had been. (LB)
Green Bean, Potato, and Dried Prune Stew ✵ 4 SERVINGS
1 pound (455 grams) potatoes, peeled or unpeeled, diced ✵ 12 onions, coarsely chopped ✵ 2 tablespoons butter ✵ 2 pounds (905 grams) green beans ✵ 1 quart (945 milliliters) vegetable broth ✵ some fresh summer savory ✵ 12 dried prunes ✵ 1 to 2 garlic cloves, to taste ✵ sea salt ✵ black pepper
Sauté the potatoes and onions in butter for about 10 minutes, until golden brown. Add beans and sauté briefly together, then add broth, summer savory, dried prunes, and garlic. Cook on low heat until done. Add salt and pepper to taste.
TIP: The stew tastes best if steeped for about an hour after cooking, but should still be served hot.
Green Beans in Garlic Butter ✵ 4 SERVINGS
20 (or fewer) whole peeled garlic cloves ✵ 6 tablespoons butter ✵ 2 pounds (905 grams) green beans ✵ ½ cup (115 milliliters) vegetable broth ✵ sea salt, pepper ✵ 4 tablespoons sour cream ✵ 1 teaspoon paprika
Gently sauté garlic in butter for about 20 minutes. Add the beans and vegetable broth, cover, and let simmer for about 30 minutes or until tender. Add salt and pepper to taste, then stir in sour cream and paprika.
TIPS: Leave garlic cloves whole as they taste better this way and develop their full aroma. ✵ Try long pepper instead of common black pepper; it has a fine smoky flavor and smells delicately of cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg. ✵ This dish pairs nicely with baked potatoes.
Broad Beans with Goat Cheese and Stinging Nettle or other Wild Greens ✵ 4 SERVINGS
1 pound (455 grams) broad beans/fava beans (removed from husks) ✵ 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar ✵ 3 tablespoons olive oil ✵ 1 medium onion, finely chopped ✵ chives, finely chopped (to taste) ✵ herbal salt ✵ black pepper ✵ 1½ cups (340 grams) fresh goat cheese (or cottage cheese) ✵ 4 tablespoons stinging nettle (or cress), very finely chopped ✵ cress, finely chopped (for garnish)
Put beans in boiling, salted water for 4 to 6 minutes, then drain. Put drained beans in fresh water and bring to a boil. When the beans are tender, remove them from the pot and let cool; pour out the water. While the beans cool, add vinegar and olive oil to the pot and mix; add onions, chives, and salt and pepper to taste. Add the beans to this mixture and marinate for 1 hour. If using fresh goat cheese: shape the cheese into small patties; roll them in stinging nettle or cress until well covered. (If using cottage cheese: mix the herbs into the cottage cheese and serve as a side dish.) After the beans have marinated, place them on a plate and garnish with the cress; serve with the goat cheese patties or herbal cottage cheese.
TIP: This dish pairs nicely with freshly baked dark bread.